Behaviour modification – is it magic?

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No, unfortunately it’s not magic, however, if it’s done right, it can be life-changing, for you and your dog.

Let’s be clear from the start, when we’re working with anxious, reactive dogs – the ‘training’ we are doing is nothing to do with obedience training. It’s all about emotions – how the dog feels. I’m not worried whether your dog can sit, lay down, stay. It’d be nice if they can walk on a loose lead as that shows some impulse control. They’re all handy, but not relevant to changing how your dog feels. And if you have a reactive or anxious dog, then I can bet you they are very stressed and we’re dealing with the emotional side of things.

Almost all the reactive, anxious dogs we see have something in common – stress.

Definition of stress: a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.

Life is stressful these days, for us and for our dogs. We know that chronic stress can make people ill, why would it be any different for dogs?

Stressed dogs need less stress in their lives – that’s pretty obvious. If you can change the reasons they are so stressed, and also do things that relieve stress, life will start to become easier for you both. We can’t even begin to work with a new dog around other dogs until stress levels have dropped.

Stressed dogs don’t learn.

Occasionally, like some people – dogs need anti anxiety medication from the vets to help them cope. Not many, but some do and if we see a dog we feel who would benefit then we work alongside the vet to ensure it’s the right medication to suit that particular dog. When we see a dog who is hyperventilating, can’t respond to their owner, or is snatching at food, or refusing treats, then there’s a lot of work to do before we can even begin work around another dog. And if that dog is also in chronic pain – let’s say they have back pain – then we’d need you to go back to the vet and sort out the medical issues before we can start work around other dogs. You’d be surprised at the amount of dogs we see who are in a low level of pain. Dogs who are in pain can’t learn either – chronic pain contributes to stress. So you can see, there’s a whole lot of changes to make before we can even start to work around other dogs. As much as we’d love to solve everything at the first consult, we can’t.

First consult for a lovely dog who had lived in Greece, on a balcony, in isolation for over 2 years.


Even stepping out of the front door can be overwhelming for some dogs, especially those who may be noise phobic (and we see a lot of noise phobic dogs) – we know how sensitive dogs’ hearing is too. Right now as I’m sitting here writing this (I live in a very rural area) – I can hear a chainsaw, a delivery lorry just went past to the pub, and a horse just trotted down the road. To some dogs, that is already too much to cope with. Let’s change that up a little, to a suburban town, we can add more traffic, buses, sirens, noise from neighbours, more dogs around, cats, foxes at night (poor sleep for the dog) – we’ve seen dogs who hide under the bed when their owners do the washing up – the noise levels can be tremendous.


This little dog was seeking comfort from it’s owner, at a busy dog show.


Now let’s say there’s an adolescent rescue dog from Romania (just one of the countries we see a lot of dogs from), and he’s been homed with a lovely, kind family, in the centre of a town. This dog is up against it from the start really – however lovely the new family are. Genetics are unlikely to be suited for coping with town life in the UK, as the parents of this dog were probably wary of people (necessary for survival) and it was probably naturally going to be very street smart. There’s a limit to what can be changed. Select your dog with care, for everyone’s benefit.

I say this a lot, if you make no changes, nothing will change. It’s the same as me going to something like Weightwatchers, and not following the plan. Nothing’s going to change. It’s no good going to one meeting, agreeing with everything they say, buying all the right food – and then eating something totally different! (oops I may have done that a few times over the years!).

Make no changes, and nothing will change. It is hard to make changes, we aren’t saying it’s easy. We understand how hard it is, both Laura and myself have been there and had to adapt our lives to our special dogs.

You may have to make changes in their environment, stop taking them to that busy park every day. Stop putting them in situations they can’t cope with. Stop taking them to the dog friendly pub, or that dog friendly cafe every morning when you get your coffee in the park. Every time a dog gets upset and stressed, we may as well forget any kind of behaviour modification for another week as it’s going to take them that long to come back down to a level where they can learn again. Don’t get hung up on the amount of exercise they get, reactive dogs don’t need more exercise – they need less stress. Hire a freedom field, go to a friend’s garden (without any dogs), walk somewhere where all dogs are on lead so you can control the distance they are from another dog. Find a way of lowering stress in the environment.


There are lots of other ways to lower stress too, licking and chewing toys, chews, scent work in your garden – enrichment in all sorts of ways. Spend more time with your dog, gently stroking them (if they like that) – learn some basic Ttouch, have a private agility lesson (if they like that), go to a hydrotherapy pool for a fun swim, go to the garden centre for a different outing. Hire our brilliant freedom field with it’s wonderful enrichment area, where dogs can explore tree trunks, walk up and down planks, mooch around without the worry of another dog appearing.

Visiting the garden centre.


Playing at the freedom field.


When we see a dog whose owners are totally committed to changing how their dog feels and they are able to follow the plan we suggest, behaviour modification does seem like magic as it really does work. But it is multi faceted and many areas of the dog’s life have to change before we start to see improvements.


Penel Malby

© Dog Communication 2018